Canoe vs. Kayak – How To Paddle The Right Way

Canoes and kayaks are two of the oldest known forms of transport, both developing independently in separate parts of the world. The big question is, which one is best? Here I investigate the canoe vs. kayak question to see if I can find a clear winner.

First Of All…

Red Canoe With A Pair Of Wooden Paddles

A Red Wooden Canoe

Orange Plastic Kayak With Yellow Paddle

An Orange Plastic Kayak

Before looking at the associated advantages and disadvantages of canoes and kayaks, we’d better quickly spend a bit of time figuring out exactly what the difference between them is – as to the uninitiated, they can look pretty similar.

  • The biggest giveaway is the paddle. Canoers use one-bladed paddles and kayakers use two-bladed versions. Canoers place a hand on one end and paddle alternately on either side. Kayakers use paddles with two blades set at 90° from each other at either end, paddling with a twisting action.
  • The next clue to look for is the seating position. In a canoe, you can kneel on one or both knees or sit on a seat or bench with your knees bent. Kayakers, on the other hand, sit in the bottom with both legs pointing straight out in front of them.
  • Other than these two pointers, canoes generally (but not always) have open decks and kayaks usually (but not always) feature closed decks. Often kayakers will also wear a spray deck over their legs to prevent water from entering.

What Does A Canoe Do?

Canoer With Equipment On Kekekabic Lake

The key features of canoes are that they tend to have more space inside, they are more stable and are usually paddled by two or more people. As the canoe is open, it easier to get in and out and they are also easier to carry in areas that require portage between waterways.

One of the biggest advantages of a canoe is the ability to carry more equipment than kayaks. If you are planning for a canoe camping trip, you won’t need to think so much about what you can take and what you need to leave behind as there will be plenty of space.

Family Of Three Canoeing On A Calm River

The fact that canoes are generally designed for more than one person means they are particularly suitable for family trips out onto the water. Two adults with two kids and a dog could comfortably set out together in a canoe but it would be next to impossible in a kayak.

Being open, canoes are more suitable for flat stretches of calm water and more tranquil rivers. They are generally much less suited to whitewater conditions. The fact that you have more space to move around in a canoe also makes them more adapted to fishing.

When Should I Pack My Kayak?

A Kayak Traveler

Kayaks are most commonly designed for solo paddlers. There is generally less space to store equipment and it is harder to get in and out which means they are awkward in areas where significant portage is required. However, they are closed and so better at keeping water out.

The closed deck coupled with the increased maneuverability gained by using a doubled-bladed paddle mean that canoes are more suited to whitewater conditions or areas with a risk of capsizing. If the kayak does turn over, you can use an “Eskimo roll” to right yourself again.

An Active Kayaker And Waterfall Among The Rocks

Kayak camping is certainly possible and can be a good option for solo trips. Kayak campers will have to be more selective about the gear they choose to take but in rough conditions, a kayak will be much better than a canoe at keeping everything dry.

If you're looking for a waterproof backpack for kayaking, check this out!

So Which Is Better?

Some people are staunchly in favor of one or the other but this question is a bit like trying to compare a baseball bat with a tennis racket. Canoes and kayaks both have their strong and weak points and it depends entirely on what you want to do with it and where you want to go.

Father And Son And The Dog Canoeing On A Beautiful Lake

Father And Son Canoeing On A Calm Lake

If the majority of your paddling is likely to be on calm, open lakes or on peaceful rivers and you wish to carry lots of provisions or maybe your family and a dog, a canoe is the obvious choice. If you are a solo paddler who enjoys a bit of white water, you should probably opt for a kayak.

Lady Paddling The Kayak In The Calm Tropical Bay At Sunset

Lady Paddling The Kayak At Sunset

Some might argue that canoes are the better choice for longer-distance journeys as the paddling action is less demanding on your arms. There is also the advantage that water doesn’t drip down the paddle on every stroke like with a kayak.


As with many of these “which is best debates”, there really is no clear winner in canoe vs. kayak as both are suited to different conditions and it is just a case of knowing which to choose. In some situations, neither has a clear advantage and it may just simply come down to personal choice.

Are you a dedicated canoer or do you swear by your kayak? Which one do you own? Or maybe you own both. Do you have any interesting stories about your canoeing or kayaking trips? Please leave me a comment – and if you enjoyed my article, please don’t forget to share!

Julie McClain

Chief editor here at Outdoorzer. I'm an outdoor lover and ever since I was a little girl, I've worked hard to learn all I could from my Dad about Camping, Hiking, RVs and surviving in the woods.

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